USC backup quarterback Max Wittek walks off the field at the end of the game… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The greatest quarterback show I have personally witnessed this year occurred not on a football field, but in a banquet room.
Last summer, I was emceeing a charity event for Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters at the Galen Center on the USC campus. At the end of the evening, in an unscripted surprise, organizers brought up this giant smiling kid who wore a crew cut and seemed to be suffocating under an ill-fitting suit.
The kid was carrying a bag of footballs. For a $200 donation, he would throw you a football from the podium.
My tepid announcement was greeted by awkward silence. The several hundred guests and I were clearly thinking the same thing. Was this such a good idea? Somebody whipping regulation footballs into a crowded, elegant room filled with tables adorned with wine bottles and glasses and half-eaten pieces of cake? Did you really want middle-aged men fortified by liquor trying to catch passes directed at their tie clasps from a kid throwing from a spotlight into shadows?
There was silence, then somebody at one of the front tables shakily raised his hand and unsteadily rose to his feet. The kid smiled and threw him a bullet across two flowered centerpieces and around a stunned waiter. The man caught the pass. The room erupted in a prolonged "Ohhhhh." This was still too strange for cheers.
There was a pause, then a gentlemen at a more distant table raised his hand and stood. This time, the kid whipped a pass around the beehive hair of a bejeweled matron, behind two elderly people returning from the restroom, and hit him right in his Armani lapels. Now there was applause. Now this was serious.
Soon, hands were shooting up and folks were standing and passes were being completed to all corners of the room. A pass was deftly floated around two busboys and placed perfectly into the arms of a woman in a black cocktail dress. A pass was whizzed past a poster and perfectly into the gut of a prominent benefactor as he walked to the silent auction table. One pass was even thrown past all the tables, rattling earrings and cuff links as it sailed into the blackness at the back of the room, where it landed in the protruding silk-shirted belly of a businessman who was so excited he acted as if he was going to spike it into a collection of breadbaskets.
I have never before, or since, seen such pinpoint passing under such incredible pressure. A kid who could have caused chaos with one slip did not slip, the balls thrown so perfectly that only one was dropped, by some wobbly dude whose wife promptly took his keys. By my best guess, the kid was 19 for 20 for $4,000, and, yes, as you may have already figured out, he was a USC quarterback.
His name was Max Wittek. When I told him I had never seen such a clutch performance, he shrugged.
"It's just football," he said.
It's just football. I'm picking USC to beat Notre Dame on Saturday because, well, it's just football. I'm picking the Trojans to upset the top-ranked Irish at the Coliseum because Wittek, who is replacing the injured Matt Barkley, is the perfect leader for a team set up perfectly for this moment.
No, this is not a homer pick. If I was going to make a homer pick, I would pick the place where I have invested enough money to paint that dome gold. My oldest daughter graduated from Notre Dame, a wonderful place that has shaped her life, and she's going to be really angry when she reads this while doing that fist-pumping routine on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard shortly after dawn.
I just can't see her heroes winning. I just can't see the Irish hanging with Marqise Lee and Robert Woods and those huge tight ends and that speedy Curtis McNeal and the hostility of a Coliseum full of fans clamoring for their disappointing team's final shot at redemption.
USC has lost four games, but it has not lost the speed or athleticism that once had people believing it was the top-ranked team in the country. Both of those attributes will wow a plodding Notre Dame team that needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh at home, one overtime to beat Stanford at home, and a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat Brigham Young at home.
Plus, for the first time this year, the Trojans will be led by a quarterback who is free of Heisman aspirations and shoulder issues and all the pressure that led Barkley to throw nine interceptions in the last four games.
For physical reasons, Coach Lane Kiffin can do things with 19-year-old Wittek that he couldn't do with Barkley. The kid is going to let it fly. The Trojans have the speed to fly with him. For the first time this year, a team with everything to lose has nothing to lose, and is there anyone more dangerous?
I've seen Mad Max rock in situations far more dire than this one. The fear of a blitzing Manti Te'o can't be any worse than the fear of knocking out a big donor's dentures.
He is the future of USC football. That future starts now. Finish your dessert and go deep.